The Art of Having Conciliatory Theological Discussions – Suggestions

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It has taken me a while to figure a few things out when it comes to discussing a disagreement with someone. Here are a few observations I have made over the last few years that set a positive tone for a healthy conversation.

Assuming the best until you find out different
When we have theological conversations, especially when we disagree we might assume that the two people in the conversation have the same purpose – to lovingly discuss an issue and try to get closer to the truth of the matter. Best case scenario in these discussions is having two people who are more interested in pursuing the truth than confirming what they already believe. These people are open to find flaws in their belief system as they realize it is entirely possible to be wrong on some of the issues. The short way of saying this is they are students rather than teachers. They realize they have much to learn and haven’t cornered the market on the truth. In a scenario when both people take this position it is entirely possible to have a discussion where two people lay out the evidence for what they believe and there to be hope for some sort of consensus being formed.

Determining the real purpose of the conversation
Unfortunately that is often not the case. It is rare that two people enter a conversation with that attitude. Instead, many people come into a discussion determined to the end to make sure, not just that their view as a whole is confirmed, but that nearly every detail of their view is upheld. Anything less, in their eyes, is failure. They don’t come to the table to learn. They don’t come to the table to concede anything. They come to win. When you are determined to win you become willing to do whatever it takes, even if truth is shot in the crossfire.

What one party thinks is an open pursuit of the truth is seen by the other party as all about confirmation bias/confirming what they already believe. It is impossible to move forward without figuring out first that the two people are coming at this with two very different purposes. Once you become aware that the purpose of the conversation is not what you thought it was it is important that you recognize that and address it. When that is understood the person seeking real answers then has to shift their purpose to opening the other person up to having a real conversation recognizing that everyone is involved are real people with a real potential to be wrong. If that cannot be navigated there usually isn’t much hope for an open and honest conversation where two people are working toward the same goal. You should cut your loses early and not hang on thinking you will finally be the person who changes them. It rarely works out.

The art of listening to opposing points of view
Once both people are willing to actually listen to opposing viewpoints you then have space to safely discuss what it is you believe and why. This has to be done respectfully and non-defensively or else the conversation shuts down. This is about listening more than it is about speaking. It is tempting to come up with your rebuttal when someone is saying things you disagree with. There will be time for that but make sure you aren’t doing a rebuttal for points they aren’t making. The way you do this is to make your first goal actually understanding their point of view. That is always how students approach things…with humility and gentleness. Ask them questions of clarification to make sure you really know what they are saying. It may be they are a poor communicator and/or you are a poor listener . If you don’t recognize that early you will end up trying to debunk something they aren’t even saying. It may take saying it a couple of times or answering a few questions before you both really understand each other.

It is not until you really understand the other person that you have permission to push back with your counter-points and evidence.

Complimenting their strengths, recognizing your weakness
At this point in the conversation you have heard what they have to say and they have heard what you have to say. If you are intently listening for truth rather than formulating your defense as they speak you will notice that they have thought of things you haven’t. They will make points that make you wonder or even convince you. It is incumbent on honest seekers of truth to affirm truth when they hear it. You have to point out the strengths in what they are saying. When you do that it will affirm that you are aware that the truth doesn’t need to be defended. The truth just needs to be affirmed when it is spoken no matter who is speaking it. The flip side of this is that as the conversation progresses you have to be open about any weaknesses in your position. Point out your own flaws before they do. Let them know what questions you still have or you feel your position raises that you are still wrestling with. Make your points but also note areas where you are still trying to figure out how your point is consistent with this handful of verses that seem to say something else. Again, honest truth seekers are seeking and that means we often still have as many “?” as we do “.” When you approach the conversation that way it opens things up and makes people safe…the conversation can progress.

Presenting your case with the right attitude
I was watching some kids the other day and I told them to stop yelling. One of them yelled at me to tell me they weren’t yelling! Discussions like this can do the same thing. We can think we are so right but have hearts that are so wrong. Remember, the truth is the truth…we just try to understand it and point people to it. The truth can stand on its own. It doesn’t need us to get clever. It doesn’t need us to twist things to fit. The truth won’t stand for manipulation, strong arming or having a hostile attitude. Those things muddy the waters and ultimately obscure the truth…they may shut people down and so we think we won but refer back to the first point…if your goal in the conversation is to win over letting the truth be known you have already lost.

6 Responses

  1. Those are good.

    Another good rule of thumb (perhaps goes with #1 or #3), from Tim Keller:

    “If your opponent wouldn’t agree with the accuracy of your statement about their beliefs, then you should not say it.”

  2. Listening to the opposing point of view is one of the hardest things to do. Additionally, you have to be sure in what you believe or else you will attempt to shout down the other side so you don’t have to hear it. The worst is when people don’t want others to hear the opposing viewpoint. This is seen too often when parents demand that creationism be taught in school. Learning about evolution does not make a child an atheist, but many parents are violently opposed to any mention of the word. Many don’t even know what evolution is.

  3. Another from Keller, via Twitter:

    “Do not assign a position to an opponent that they will not own. Always put their argument in the best light.”

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